About this Show

Moyers Company

Living Outside Tribal Lines News/Business. Sherman Alexie. (2013) Economic inequality in California; writer Sherman Alexie. (CC) (Stereo)

NETWORK
PBS

DURATION
01:00:00

RATING

SCANNED IN
San Francisco, CA, USA

SOURCE
Comcast Cable

TUNER
Channel 15 (129 MHz)

VIDEO CODEC
mpeg2video

AUDIO CODEC
ac3

PIXEL WIDTH
528

PIXEL HEIGHT
480

TOPIC FREQUENCY

Us 14, America 7, Lincoln 6, New York 5, Yo Yo Ma 5, Indians 4, Pendleton 4, United States 4, Sherman Alexie 3, Washington 3, Seattle 3, Buffalo 3, Anne Gumowitz 2, Oregon 2, Jesse Fink 2, Polly Guth 2, The City 2, Minnesota 2, Google 2, John D. 2,
Borrow a DVD
of this show
  PBS    Moyers Company    Living Outside Tribal Lines  News/Business. Sherman Alexie.   
   (2013) Economic inequality in California; writer Sherman...  

    April 15, 2013
    9:00 - 10:00pm PDT  

9:00pm
company" -- the highs and lows of silicon valley. and -- >> because i'm ambiguously ethnic looking, you know, i come to new york and i can be anything. people generally think i'm half of whatever they are. you know, i can be in a room full of indians and non-indians, and i can switch in the middle of sentences. i end up feeling like a spy in the house of ethnicity. >> announcer, funding is provided by, carnegie corporation of new york, celebrating 100 years of phanthropy, and coitted o doing real and permanent good in the world. the kohlberg foundation. independent production fund,
9:01pm
with support from the partridge foundation, a john and polly guth charitable fund. the clements foundation. park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the bernard and audre rapoport foundation. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. mo infortion at macfound.org. anne gumowitz. the betsy and jesse fink foundation. the hkh foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company. welcome. inequality matters. you will hear people say it
9:02pm
doest, but they are usually so high up the ladder they can't even see those at the bottom. the distance between the first and the least in america is vast and growing. "the washington post" recently took a look at two counties in florida and found that people who live in the more affluent st. johns county live longer than those who live next door in less rich putnam county. the post concluded, "the widening gap in life expectancy between these two adjacent florida counties reflects perhaps the starkest outcome of the nation's growing economic inequit even as t nation life expectancy has marched steadily upward, a growing body of research shows that those gains are going mostly to those at the upper end of the income ladder." that's true across america. in california's silicon valley, apple, facebook and google, among others, have reinvented the gold rush. but down the road in san jose it's not so pretty a picture. do the math, in an area where
9:03pm
one fourth of the population earn an average of about $19,000 a year, rent alone can average morthan $20,000 dollars a year, and that difference adds up to homelessness. we talked to associated press reporter martha mendoza, who brought this story to our attention. >> i've been a journalist in this area for 25 years, and during that time it has gone from having a pretty robust middleclass to being an area where you see this great divide of wealthy and poor, and nowhere do you see that more than in the silicon valley, where 25 years ago this was a place of orchards and farms and ranching and small businesses, and it has completely changed now, so that you have incredibly wealthy people and incredibly poor people and a growing gap. homelessness has increased dramatically. in the shadow of google, in the shadow of oracle, in the shadow of apple computer, you have people who are hungry.
9:04pm
>> people had this believe that somehow silicon valley was paved with gold-and i would even say my parents, coming from new mexico, all those years ago when i was very small, i mean they came here looking for opportuny. they wanted to be in a place that it didn't matter what their ethnicity or culture was, it didn't matter what their class was, that they really could put their stake in the ground, buy a home and grow a family. i think that's a dream that a lot of people come to silicon valley with, and one of the problems is that it's not like that for everybody. we have really been a tale of two cities for really a long time. >> our economic expansion is pretty staggering, people have referred to it as the longest, most sustained, largest, legal wealth creation in the history of the planet. we have very high-income, highest in the nation. we also have very low. we've got both. and what's actually happening right now is a hollowing out in the middle.
9:05pm
now, this is a national phenomenon, but it seems to be particularly acute in silicon valley. we're still generating on the high end-engineers and scientists and coders. but the support positions, manufacturing, you're not going to see that in silicon valley anymore. >> ty would manufacture silicon chips here in the early days. and i was just the other day looking for anybody making wafers anymore, and there's not. >> i used to work with national semiconductor. i worked in masking. i made that silicon chip. i'm the one who put the programs on that chip, i'm the one who inspected them. i've cleaned houses, i have taken care of disabled people. i'm 54 years old, i've got nothing. >> what happened was, in the silicon valley 15 years ago, during the first boom, for every five jobs they were adding, they were building two units of housing. so that jacked up the housing prices to what fights for the
9:06pm
most expensive housing in the country. sometimes it's first place. sometimes it's second place. people who had blue-collar jobs were getting paid 10, 15, 20 bucks an hour, and when their jobs went away they were largely unskilled and could take jobs that paid $8 an hour. that would be the minimum wage in san jose for the past 15 years. as of last week, they raised it $10 an hour. now, on that type of wages, you can't rent an apartment, you can't buy food, and you can't handle the transportation expenses, which can be very high. and so you end up-in some cases you find people living three or four families to an apartment, or people move into homeless shelters or people leave the area. >> this is my tent. this is where i live. i've got my transportation, my bike. i have electricity that i run by car battery. i worked at a restaurant at
9:07pm
goog. they have, i don't know, i guess 16 or 18 full-blown restaurants you can go eat at when you work there, for free. i never heard of that in my life. they started doing background checks and they did a background check on me. i'm a convicted felon, so they couldn't keep me there anymore. right now, i do yard work for people, stuff like that. i find bikes i fix them up and resell them. >> in many communities you see the homeless people, you see them living in the streets, you see them begging downtown, or busking. in the silicon valley, this is a lot of freeway living and the homeless people they live along the creeks, or in parks, but where people aren't going to see them, so it's more of a hidden problem. >> we had a family visit us, mother, father and three children, and they are homeless, and they're homeless because the father is a gardener, he works three days a week, he makes $75 every day he works. the mother lost her job in manufacturing. it took one paycheck to move them from their apartment onto
9:08pm
the street. and that's true for a lot of families in our community. at some point and i do worry about this, like i think is it all sudden that the country splits in half are we creating literally two americas? >> silicon valley has the brainpower and has the risky personality to do some really innovative things when it comes to poverty. and i even think there's a will to do this, but i think there is a lack of awareness, and hopefully a growing awareness because i do think there's been brilliance out of that region that has changed the world. so wouldn't it be something if that area could also be the one that sparks the brilliance that starts to solve this really major problem? >> let's hope so, because inequality in america is now at the greatest level in modern history and shows no signs of abating. and paradoxically, this week it got worse. the stock market reached new
9:09pm
levels, making the rich richer and the press euphoric. >> and the gavel goes down on an historic day on wall street. >> roaring stock markets. >> the s&p just hit another record intraday gh. >> dow's above 14.8. >> the nasdaq rose about 60 points. >> no one stopped to point out that when the market goes up, it can mean companies have fired workers in order to increase investor profits. sure enough, the latest figures show employment has barely risen and more rank-and-file americans have gone missing from the job market altogether. the commerce department reports that personal income fell 3.6% in january. that's the sharpest one-month dive in 20 years. it sure seems like the roaring 20s all over again, people at the top living it up while those down below lose their livelihood. which brings us to our nation's capital.
9:10pm
rich in alabaster symbols of representative government yet shamelessly cynical in writing laws and bending rules to favor the one percent. and that includes the tax code. so, on monday, when you send in your tax returns, think about this. corporate profits are at record highs. but have those companies invested that in new jobs? no. did they at least give their workers a bump in pay? hardly. surely they shelled out a little more in taxes to help refurbish the social structure, highways, bridges, schools, libraries, parks, where they do business! guess again. corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion of cash. look at this report just published by pirg. the public interest research group, on how average citizens and small businesses have to make up the $90 billion giant companies save by shifting profits toffshore x havens. among the 83 publicly traded corporations named, pfizer,
9:11pm
which for the past five years reported no taxable income in the us, even as it made 40% of its sales here. microsoft, which avoided $4.5 billion in taxes over three years by shifting its income to puerto rico. citigroup, which maintains 20 subsidiaries in tax havens and has over $42.5 billion sitting off-shore. taxes collected here at home? zero. it's not only corporations stashing their swag abroad. the center for public integrity in washington and its international consortium of investigative journalists recently got their hands on two and a half million files from offshore bank accounts and shell companies set up around the world by the wealthy. among those documents are the names of 4,000 americans who hid their money in secret tax havens.
9:12pm
>> you can easil set up a secret company using one of hundreds of off-shore agents. let's look at the british virgin islands, home to half a million offshore companies. that's about 40% of the offshore companies on the planet. you can buy a ready-made shell company or create your own secret company from scratch in about three days, for just over $1,000. you may be asked to produce documents to establish your identity and they might check your name in a database, to see if you're a terrorist. but don't worry, while the system may catch the big fish, it still lets scores of fraudsters and criminals slip through the net. >> so, it shouldn't surprise us to learn that the united states collects less in taxes as a share of its economy than all but two other industrialized countries. only chile and mexico collect less.
9:13pm
chile and mexico. right now a powerful group of ceo's, multi-millionaires and billionaires are calling on congress fix the debt. and their enablerin bot parties are glad to oblige. okay. but why not fix the debt by raising more taxes from those who can afford to pay? close the loopholes. shut down the tax havens. cancel the mitt romney clause congress enacted, allowing big winners to pay a tax rate far tg1÷fq?h2ña
9:14pm
and a modest one at that, and yet the main source of purchasing power for millions of aging americans. th, from a democrat, the heir of franklin delano roosevelt who pulled us to our feet when the great depression had america on its knees. franklin delano roosevelt, this social security measure gives at least some protection to 30 million of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health. but those were the days when our policalystem rallied to the defense of everyday americans. now a petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government, while millions
9:15pm
of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the united states of inequality. warren buffett, the savviest capitalist of them all, may have written this era's epitaph, "if there was a class war, my class won." let's talk now with sherman alexie. he comes from a long line of people who have lived the consequences of inequality, native americans, the first americans. they were the target of genocide, ethnic cleansing, which for years was the hidden history of america, kept in the closet by the authors and enforcers of white mythology. how do you grapple with such a long deed history? if you are sherman alexie, you face it down with candor and
9:16pm
even irreverence, writing poems, novels, and short stories, and even movies. here's a clip from "smoke signals" that alexie wrote and co-produced in 1998, >> "you got to look mean or people won't respect you. white people will run all over you if you don't look mean. you got to look like a warrior. you got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo." buffalo." >> but our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fishermen. >> what? you want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? this ain't "dances with salmon," you know. >> alexie has published 22 books of poetry and fiction, including "the lone ranger and tonto fistfight in heaven," "war dances," and "the absolutely true diary of a part-time indian," a book for young adults and winner of the national book award. his latest work is a collection of short stories, old and new, with the title, "blasphemy." i'll ask him why. he now lives in seattle, like many of his characters who left the reservation for the city,
9:17pm
living in between, and traveling across boundaries both real ad imagined. sherman alexie, welcome. >> oh, thank you. it's good to be here. >> life for you is a lot of in between, isn't it? >> well, as a native, as a colonized people you do live in the in between. the thing is i'm native. but necessarily because i'm a member of the country, i'm also a white american. >> but you must feel at home in that in between now, because so many people are, as you say, living the. >> i was taught that it was not easy, that there was something destructive about it. i was taught by my elders, my parents that it was a bad, dangerous place to be. but i've come to realize it's actually, it's pretty magical. you know? i can be in a room full of indians and non-indians. and i can switch in the middle of sentences.
9:18pm
so, and also because i'm ambiguously ethnic looking, you know, i come to new york and i can be anything. peop generally think i'm half of whateverhey are. so, ind up feeling like a spy in the house of ethnicity, you know? because people will talk around me as they would talk around the people in their cultural group. so, i get to hear all the secrets and jokes and you know, i'm a part of every community because of the way i look. >> is that a big change from your parents' generation and your generation? >> oh, i mean, i grew up in a monoculture. we did a family tree in sixth grade on the rez and everybody was related. >> on the reservation? >> yes, including the teacher. my mom and dad met when he moved to the rez, when he was 5 and she was 14 and she helped him get a drink at a water fountain. my mom was born in the house where her m was born. we re as isoled ithe sense of nave amerins as anybody else. so, you know, i realized later on that when i left the rez to go to the white high school on the border of the rez i was a first-generation immigrant, you know? i'm an indigenous immigrant.
9:19pm
>> what is it like to be an alien in the land of your birth? >> i mean, it's a destructive feeling. because, you know, a lot of native culture has been destroyed. so, you already feel lost inside your culture. andhen you add up fling lost and insignificant inside the larger culture. so, you end up feeling lost squared. and to never be recognized, to never have any power, you know, other minority communities actually have a lot of economic, cultural power. but we don't, you know? not at all. i mean, you can still have the washington redskins, you know? you can still have the atlanta braves and the cleveland indians, which is by far the worst. and if you look at chief wahoo on the hats and put sambo next to him, it's the same thing. and, you know, you could never have sambo anymore. most, you know, at least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. but i think it's indicative of the ways in which indians have
9:20pm
no cultural power. we're still placed in the past. so, we're either in the past or we're only viewed through casinos. >> do you feel shoved back into that tight space, that closet, even by the questions i ask about indians, natives, reservation, all of that? >> sometimes. but, i'm -- you know, it's who i am. so, i have no issue talking about it. you know, i know a lot more about being white than younow about being indian. i am extremely conscious of my tribalism. and when you talk about tribalism, you talk about living in a black and white world. i mean, native american tribalism sovereignty, even the political fight for sovereignty and cultural sovereignty is a very us versus them. and i think a lot of people in this country, especially european americans and those descended from europeans don't see themselves as tribal, you know? i don't think, for instance, republicans see themselves as tribal. i waspeaking ta reblican here in new york, a friend of mine.
9:21pm
and, you know, i asked him, do you think it's an accident that, what, 80% of republicans are white males? and he did. i mean, he -- >> coincidence, huh? >> yes. he couldn't even imagine that he's part of a tribe. so, as a member of a tribe, i think i have a more conscious relationship with black and white thinking. and i used to be ite a black and white thinker in public life and private life until 9/11, you know? and the end game of tribalism is flying planes into building. that's the end game. so, since then, i have tried, and i fail often, but i have tried to live in the in between. to be conscious what did fitzgerald say? the sign of a superior mind is the ability to hold two different ideas. keats called it negative capability. so, i have tried to be in that and fail often, but i try. >> that's what i get from your poems.
9:22pm
ou even see yo yo ma's cel differently from the rest of us. that's one of my favorites. would you read it? >> oh, yes -- >> here it is. >> and this poem is called "tribal music." watching pbs, it occurs to me that i want to be yo yo ma's cello. hello! does this mean that i'm sexually attracted to yo yo ma? nah, he's cute and thin looks great in a tux, and makes the big bucks, but i long to be simultaneously as strong and fragile as the cello. i want to be the union of fingertip and string. i want less to be a timorous human and desire more to become a solid wooden thing, warm to the touch but much colder when left alone in my case. i need to flee the mystery of mortality and insanity and become that space between the notes.
9:23pm
i no longer want to be the root cause of anybody's pain, especially my own. o, yo yo ma, i hem and haw, but let's be clear, wa to abandon my sixteen-drum fear and inhabit the pause that happens between falling in love and collapsing because of love. i want to be sane. i want to be clean and visionary like a windowpane. >> where does that come from? >> well, you know, number one the cello looks like a woman to me. and, you know, the curves. and, so i am in a way, and it's funny to admit this, i am
9:24pm
sexually attracted to the cello, the curves really get me. so, as i watched him play, you know, yo yo ma is sort of making love to a beautiful woman. and i want to be that beautiful. so, i was thinking of that watching it. and then it occurred to me, you now, i'm a m. i don'tant to be woman. but i wa to the oect of beauty. i want to be so clearly beautiful. ñoáf4!!jfuóje)
9:25pm
well, i'm bipolar. so, you know, i myself veer between these extremes. and to be in the middle is a strong desire. and i mean, i'm working on this idea, i don't know where it's going to go, that being tribal, being colonized automatically makes you bipolar. i think the entire native american world is bipolar. >> but is this your imagination or are you clinically bipolar? >> i'm clinically -- >> you've been diagnosed -- >> i've been diagnosed. i'm medited. and the medication's working right now. i mean as any person watching this who knows anything the, you know, the medications have to be adjusted constantly, because your brain sneaks around it, you know? your brain is like the, your bipolar brain is like the soldiers. and your sanity is like the civilians. >> help me understand what the experience of bipolarity is, what happens to you? >> well, you know, when you're depressed, you know, it's like the world has ended. even getting out of bed takes the most massive aunt of effort.
9:26pm
but when you're manic, oh, it's so addicting. you know, i have finished novels in two weeks in manic stages. just staying up, you know, two days in a row writing and great stuff often. i mean, you're crazy. so, you get these incredible images. you know, forget yo yo ma's cello. i mean, it ends up being, you know, i'm, well, i'm hearkening back to somebody like sylvia plath, you know, writing colossus, you know, daddy, you know, "you do t do." you know, which directly comes out of mental illness. and depression and mania. i would venture that most of the world's great art has come out of manic periods in an artist's life. >> but has it ever occurred to you that there's been more preoccupation with sylvia plath's illness than with her poetry? >> oh yeah. i mean, there's a new biography out about her. and it's the same story. it's about her craziness. >> why is that? >> i think we're more interested in the biography.
9:27pm
>> the story. >>yeah, and especial in is era, where there are no secrets anymore, where the audience in fact desires so much to know more about the artist. you know? you're supposed to now twitter everything you're feeling, you know? you go to, you know, some artist's, writer's twitters. and like everybody else, they're talking about what they had for dinner, you know? all over writer's twitter feeds and facebook pages are pictures of what they had for dinner. and why anybody would care, you know, that i had a bl of cereal in my hotel room this morning, i don't get it. and -- >> so, does that explain the facebook sonnet? >> oh, definitely. definitely. >> all right, let's hear that one. >> "the facebook sonnet." welcome to the endless high school reunion. welcome to past friends and lovers, however kind or cruel. let's undervalue and unmend the present. why can't we pretend every stage
9:28pm
of life is the same? let's exhume, resume, and extend [ a ] childhood. let's all play the games that occupy the young. let fame and shame intertwine. let one's search for god become public domain. let church.com become our church. let us sign up, sign in, and confess here at the altar of loneliness. >> sherry turkle has written a book called alone together on just this point. talking about how the internet has produced this serial isolation. >> well, when i think thehuman is so complex, you know? and as we're relating here, we're relating on so many different levels that we don't consciously understand. i mean, we're actually smelling each other right now, but our, we, as we talk, don't know that, but our bodies know that, you
9:29pm
know? my gestures, your gestures, the look in your eye. and the internet takes all that away. there was, there is one level of communication on the internet, which actually in a way is really insulting to the complexity of being human. >> how so? >> it limits us tone sense. oneimension. >> one dimension. and that's not who we are. the poetry, if you will, of life is reduced to this sort of dry, scientific, you know, it's the worst sort of précis of who we are. and, you know, i don't have facebook friends. i have friends. and a lot of my friends play basketball. and when we play basketball together, literally, we're touching each other. and that can't be replicated in ny form wtsoevewith the internet. and when people say they're really connecting with somebody, i think, it occurs to me that i don't know that they've ever
9:30pm
really connected with anybody if they think the internet is how you do it. you know? it's postcard relationships. in order to know somebody through their words, i mean, it has to be an, it has to be a letter, you know? it has to be a long e-mail. it has to be a five-page hand-written letter, you know, it has to be overwhelming and messy and sloppy as humans are. and facebook and twitter and these other social sites bring every, i mean, 140 character i mean, i'm otwitter and i he fun. but i don't think anybody learns anything about me as a person. you know, one of the things i've always tried to do as a public person is limit the gap between who i am on a daily basis and who i am on a stage. you know, i've tried to be as honest -- >> consciously. -- yes, i've tried to be as honest as possible. >> how are you different? >> well, i think i'm a more gentle person in private, maybe slightly more gentle. i mean, i'm a lot more confrontational in public. i mean, i'm very angry person.
9:31pm
>> at what? >> oppression. >> oppression? >> racism, sexism, colonialism, the sins of capitalism, the sins of socialism, human weakness, human cruelty. you know, when we behave more like a lion pride than people with prehensile thumbs. >> is writing cathartic for you? is it healing? >> no. i think it can be healing for readers. you know, i have been helped and healed by other people's words. >> same here. >> bui, my own words for myself, oh man, i don't think so. >> do you think of yourself as a poet first and foremost? because that's how i first got introduced to you. >> i'm naturally a poet. i started as a poet. i think it's how i look at the world, you know? >> what, how does it help you see the world? >> you know, i look at yo yo ma's cello and want to be the cello.
9:32pm
i think a novelist would want to write about where the cello came from, who built it. i dot care. >> in this poem, "tribal music", whose tribal music are you writing about? >> mine. a tribe of one. you know, one of the things about being tribal, being a member of a tribe is the force that makes you, that makes the tribe, for you to be like the tribe, to share similar values, to be less of an individual and more a very conscious member of a community to share political beliefs, to share cultural beliefs. and i've always resisted tha onef thmisconceptions about indians, you know, because liberals love indians, you know? white liberals worship indians. but actually, indians are a conservative lot. i mean, we by and large we vote democrat, but we live very republican lives, you know? indian communities, there's no separation of church and state, war is a virtue, guns are
9:33pm
everywhere, by and large pro-life. so, you know, once again, it's a very bipolar existence. you know, this, you know, knowing that democrats, by and large, are going to support us more. but still behaving like republicans. you know, it occurs to me it's like a big city republicans, who live these incredibly liberal, secular lives in the city, while espousing small town religious politics. >> you're, so different from how i expected you to be, quite frankly, because i have never met you. although one of my producers met you se years ago, 11 years go, i think, rick fies. and i have a clip of the piece that we ran on my show then about you from seattle. take a peek. >> but my dad, that alcoholic nomad, he used to leave my family for days or weeks at a time drinking and roaming. and i would lie awake all night
9:34pm
waiting for him to come home, and five or six times i cried myself sick into the hospital. and i'd lie awake in the kids' ward, ignoring the night shift nurses who came in and said, "please, try and get a little sleep." so maybe i learned how to be an insomniac because i'm still waiting for my father to come home. >> what's changed for you since then? >> medication. i was undiagnosed bipolar. and staying awake was directly the result of that. either staying awake because i was depressed and didn't want to fall asleep for the nightmares or because i was manic and couldn't fall asleep because i had a million things to do. >> did your father ever come home? >> no. you know, i cut my hair when he dieds part of a cemony. and u cagrow ibackhen the grieving is over. it's been 10 years since he died. so, and i haven't grown my hair back.
9:35pm
and i doubt i will. >> he was an alcoholic? >> oh, lifelong, really. >> there's one scene in your short story war dances, where the narrator's in the hospital with his father, who has just had surgery. he's cold. and the son is trying to find a blanket for him. why don't you read this excerpt, war dances, from "blasphemy." >> i walked down the hallway, the recovery hallway, to the nurses' station. there were three woman nurses, two white and one black. being native american-spokane and coeur d'alene indian, i hoped my darker pigment would give me an edge with the black nurse, so i addressed her directly. "my father is cold," i said. "can i get another blanket?" the black nurse glanced up from her paperwork and regarded me. her expression was neither compassionate nor callous. ow can i he yousir?" she asked.
9:36pm
"i'd like another blanket for my father. he's cold. " "i'll be with you in a moment, sir." she looked back down at her paperwork. she made a few notes. not knowing what else to do, i stood there and waited. "sir," the black nurse said, "i'll be with you in a moment." she was irritated. i understood. after all, how many thousands of times had she been asked for an extra blanket? she was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper. and it was never really about an extra blanket, was it? no, when people asked for an extra blanket, they were asking for a time machine. and, yes, she kw shwas a heth care provider. and she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? so, he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? i know she didn't want to be cruel, but she believed there was a point when doctors should
9:37pm
stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. and i couldn't disagree with her, but i could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn't i? "my father," i said, "an extra blanket, please " >> >> autobiographical? >> oh, completely. you know, i remember when my first short stories came out and people were calling it autobiographical and i fought it. and then 10 years later i reread the book and thought, "oh shoot, this is memoir." >> eventually, the son in the story finds a pendleton blanket. what's a pendleton blanket? it actuay ma by a white-owned company in oregon. these blankets have become highly sacred among indians. and actually, the pendleton company's amazing in their relationship with indians. so, you know, we love the pendleton company in oregon. and they're gifts. you know, the joke is they're like native american fruitcakes. the same blanket travels over
9:38pm
and over and over. and nobody ever uses it. was that you searching for a blanket or wishing you were -- >> wishing and the desire to go out. because i knew there'd be indians in the hospital, you know? if you're near an indian community, there are indians in the hospital. and, so i knew somewhere in that hospital was an indian family with more than one pendleton. >> and in the story, the son brings the blanket back. and he and his father sing together. did that happen? >> no, we never sang together. >> you wish it had happened? >> yes. i mean, even if we'd sang elvis together, that would have been great. >> you know, that you've been described as both an explorer and an exploder of indian stereotype. and alcohol is surely one of the most persistent stereotypes, correct? >> it's not a stereotype. it's a damp, damp reality. i mean, native americans have an epidemic rate of alcoholism.
9:39pm
i'm an alcoholic, recovering. my father was an alcoholic. my big brother's an alcoholic. one of my little sister's an alcoholic. my mom's a recovering alcoholic. every single one of my cousins is a drinker. all of my aunts and uncles were drinkers, me of them have quit,ome of thenever did. you know, my classmates, you know, three have died in alcoholic-related accidents. my brother has had five best friends die in alcohol-related accidents. and we're not atypical. >> what have you come to understand about that? >> it's medication. trying to take away the pain. and in a way it has substituted for cultural ways of dealing with the pain. so, instead of singing, we're drinking. and my father often said, "i drink because i'm indian,"
9:40pm
which, you know, is the saddest thing imaginable. >> why did you drink? >> because i'm indian. >> how do you -- how do you stay sober? >> because i don't want to disappoint all those hungry sons out there, whose own fathers have failed them. because whether or not i believe in visions or omens, the last time i drank, i completely destroyed my then girlfriend's birthday party with my alcoholic behavior. and woke up the next day, late in the afternoon feeling deeply ashamed and thinking once again, "i'm going to quit." you know, i tried eight or nine times. but i woke up, went and checked my mail, and the acceptance from "hanging loose" for my first poetry book was in the mail. and i thought, "okay, this is a sign. write poems, sober up." >> and you did? >> and i did.
9:41pm
>> you live in seattle now. you've lived there for how long? >> 20 years. >> but as a boy you lived on the spokane -- >> -- reservation. how do you feel where you're in a place where your people were ethnically cleansed? >> we didn't make reservations. the military, the us military and government made reservations. and it was a place where we're supposed to be concentrated and die and disappear. and i don't know, and i think it's only o of self-destructive impulses that native americans have turned reservations into sacred spaces. >> you don't consider them sacred? >> no. often the place where reservations are aren't where the sacred locations were for tribes. i think spokane, because it's where spokane falls is, i think the city is actually far more sacred than the reservation. >> well, more indians today live in the cities than live on reservations. >> it's almost 70% of natives
9:42pm
live off the reservation. it's not easy to live in either place. >> can american indians ever feel easy in a country that is haunted by the memories of genocide, ethnic cleansing? >> i think for that process to begin, the united states would have to officially apologize. i mean, there's a holocaust museum in the united states, which i think there should be. >> right in downtown washington. >> but there should also be a native american holocaust museum. >> why isn't there? >> this country's not good at admitting to its sins. >> have you ever heard an apology for what happened? >> from white liberals. b never from white coservatives >> these were, you were nearly exterminated. you -- >> oh, late 19th-century, early 20th, we almost blinked out. ironically, the reservations also saved us, because they concentrated us. >> how did that save you? >> breeding.
9:43pm
you know? it wasn't until much later when the us government realized that relocation, taking us out of, you know, highly-concentrated ethnic communities was the way to dissipate us. and that didn't work either, you know? there are blonindians now, red-headed indians. so was cultul precti. it was sovereignty. the impulse to be together in a little group. >> in this sense, possessed of a horrendous memory, do you sometimes think of yourself as jewish? >> constantly. i have a really strong identification with that. and, you know, it's funny, because my poetry editors are jewish. and, you know, i have quite an international following. and one of my editors tells the story of she and her husband were in rope and these italian schola werreally obsessed and questioning about, you know, "what is the relationship between jewish people and indians?" and using my work as sort of this universal idea.
9:44pm
and they asked her, "what does the native world think about," you know, "jewish people and native americans?" and she said, "i think only sherman talks about that." so, i, it's a very personal vision. the big thing is humor. humor in the face of incredible epic pain. i mean, jewish folks invented amecan comedy when you're being funny in the united states, you're being jewish. and despite all this incredible dislocation. and the thing, you know, even though it's pretty similar in population, the number of jewish folks and the number of native americans, they've had this incredible success. they have this incredible cultural power. and in a way, i wi that was us. in a way, that could have easily been us. you know?
9:45pm
indians with our storytelling and artistic ability could have created hollywood. we could have created american comedy. so, in some ways, we're the yin and yang of the american genocidal coin. >> there's a poem that i have read several times in anticipation of this meeting. and this one is troubling. "another proclamation." >> "another proclamation." when lincoln delivered the emancipation proclamation, who knew that, one year earlier, in 1862, he'd signed and approve the order for the largest public execution in united states history? who did they execute? "mulatto, mixed-bloods, and indians." why did they execute them? "for uprising against the state and her citizens." where did they execute them? mankato, minnesota. h ow did they execute them? well, abraham lincoln thought it was good and just to hang
9:46pm
38 sioux simulteously. yes, in front of a large and cheering crowd, 38 indians dropped to their deaths. yes, 38 necks snapped. but before they died, 38 indians sang their death songs. can you imagine the cacophony of 38 different death songs? but wait, one indian was pardoned at the last minute, so only 37 indians had to sing their death songs. but o, o, o, o, can you imagine the cacophony of that one survivor's mourning song? ifhe taught you e words do you think you would sing along? >> talk about that. >> well, essentially, they were executed for terrorism. the perception of being terrorists for defending themselves and their people from colonial incursions.
9:47pm
>> as the whites had been pushing into minnesota, pushing em fther west. and pomisd them, as i understand it, food in exchange for land. and then the food didn't come. and the indians reacted violently. >> and then all over the country massacres happening of people they, you know, they would push these tribes and these people onto reservations and then send the soldiers in to wage war on them. i just learned, i don't know why i didn't know this, some sort of denial i guess. but they gave medals of honor to u.s. soldiers who participated at wounded knee, absolute massacres of unarmed women, children, and elderly people.
9:48pm
they gave medals of honor. and, you know, this idea of lincoln as this great savior. which is true. but in deifying him, it completely, completely whiwashes the fact that he was also a complete part of the colonization of indians, a complete part of the wholesale slaughter of indians. >> he lived in the in between like everyone. what i know of this incident is that 303 indians were sentenced to death. president lincoln commuted the sentences of 265 of them on the basis he himself said of not enough evidence, but allowed 38 of them to be hanged. >> so, the hypocrisy abounds. so once again, the way in which i watch lincoln the movie is far different than most people watch lincoln. that movie in no way portrayed the compxity of human beings, and certainly does not portray the complexity of lincoln, who for his genius was also, you know, an incredibly, as any politician, an incredibly conflicted and conflicting man,
9:49pm
who was capable of ordering great evil. and who did, in fact, by ordering it, created a great evil, committed great evil, a sinful, sinful man that lincoln. >> had you known about the story for a long time? >> you know, most indians kw a lot out the maacres. there tchstones. they're a myth for us. >> what saved you spiritually? what saved you inwardly? >> storytelling. >> the age-old stories, you know, sort of an actual sacred nostalgia. and keeping all the ghosts alive, keeping all the memories alive. if you tell a story well enough, everybody in it is right there. so, nobody ever dies. >> why did you call this book "blasphemy"? >> because i've been so often accused of it by indians and non-indians.
9:50pm
>> how so? >> because i question everything. because even though i do believe in the sacred, i believe just as strongly in questioning what people think is sacred. because we're humans and we make mistakes. so, you know, i do my best to point out our weaknesses. and people don't like that. and the weaknesses of our institutions and the weaknesses of o policia andhe weaknesses of our religions. once again, 9/11, was the event for me. 9/11 turned all sorts of people into fundamentalists who weren't otherwise, on the left and the right, in the christian worlds and in the muslim worlds. and i refuse to participate. >> so, what do you mean by blasphemy? >> i don't believe in your god. and "your" means the royal "your."
9:51pm
>> do you believe in your god? >> no. >> what do you believe in? >> stories. stories are my god. >> would you read this for me? >> "vilify." i've never been to mount rushmore. it's just too silly. even now, as i write this, i'm thinking about the t-shirt that has four presidential faces on the front and four bare asses on the back. who's on that damn t-shirt anyway? is it bo roosevelt's, jefferson, and lincoln? don't get me wrong, i love my country. but epic sculpture just leaves me blinking with dry-eyed boredom (and don't get me started on blown glass art. i really hate that crap. i've never been to mount rushmore. it's just too silly. even now, as i write this, i'm thinking that i'd much rather
9:52pm
commemorate other president. les honor jfk's whoring and drinking or the 13 duels andrew jackson fought to defend his wife's honor. why don't we sculpt that? who's on that [ expletive ] rushmore anyway? is it mckinley, arthur, garfield, and lincoln? and, yes, i know, there's a rival sculpture of crazy horse, but the sight of that one is ball-shrinking because crazy horse never allowed his image to be captured, so which sculptor do you think he'd now attack? i've never been to mount rushmore. it's just too silly. even now, as i write this i'm thinking about george w.'s wartime lies, clinton's cigars, and nixon's microphones, andi'm cringing because i kw every president, no matter how great on the surface, owned a heart chewed by rats. kwo's who's on that [ expletive ] rushmore, anyway? is it buchanan, both adams's, and mr. lincoln? answer me this, after the slaughterhouse goes out of
9:53pm
business, how long will it go on stinking of red death and white desire? should we just cover the presidents' faces with gas masks? who cares? i've nevereen to rushmore. it's too lly. even now, as i write this, i'm thinking, "who's on that xwp [ expletive ] mountain, anyway? is it jefferson, washington, reagan and lincoln? >> now go eight pages over to page 38 and read me your footnote. >> so it's footnote 13. honestly, i've never been there. this is not a conceit for the poem. i've truly never had any interest in visiting mount rushmore or the crazy horse memorial. once while driving in the region, i thought about stopping by, but i didn't. i have no regrets. i've seen alfred hitchcock's film "north by northwest," where
9:54pm
cary grant's climactic battle with the bad guys happens on the face of mount rushmore. it's exciting. but i much prefer the ending where we watch grant and eva marie saint start to make out in their train car, and then cut to the final shot of that awesomely phallic train penetrating a wonderfully vaginal mountain tunnel. i'm aover, not a fighter." >> and we're all glad for that. sherman alexie, i really enjoyed this time with you. and thank you very much for sharing it. >> thank you, thank you. >> shean alexei wl joining uatur websi, billmoyers.com, for a live web chat this coming tuesday, that's
9:55pm
april 16th, at 1pm, eastern time. you can submit your questions on the website or at our facebook page. i'll see you there and i'll see you here, next time. >> announcer: don't wait a week to get more moyers. visit billmoyers.com for exclusive blogs,s says and video features. this episode of missouris & company is available on dvd for $19.95. to order call 1 hf-800-336-1917 write to the address on your screen. >> announcer, fundings providedby, carnegie
9:56pm
orrati of new york, celrating 100 years of philanthropy, and committed to doing real and permanent good in the world. the kohlberg foundation. independent production fund, with support from the partridge foundation, a john and polly guth charitable fund. the clements foundation. park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the bernard and audre rapoport foundation. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information at macfound.org. anne gumowitz. the betsy and jesse fink foundation. the hkh foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company.
9:57pm
9:58pm
9:59pm